People talk a good game about wanting to cut their carbon footprints, but they’re not willing to pony up the cash if it means more expensive flying.
Over half the people across 13 countries polled by Morning Consult for POLITICO said they’d be prepared to pay more to fly with an airline that takes consistent measures to reduce its carbon footprint.
But that’s not really true.
According to Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, only 1 percent of his passengers pay an extra €2 fee to offset their flight’s emissions.
“There’s a big disconnect between passengers on a customer survey going: ‘Oh yes, we want carbon offsetting, we want to do this,’ and then ask them, will you voluntarily offset, and 99 percent kindly say: ‘No thank you, we won’t do it,” he told an industry conference.
It’s not just Ryanair.
The typical take-up for voluntary offsetting schemes lies somewhere between 1 percent and 3 percent of all airline customers, according to the International Air Transport Association.
“We call it the intention-behavior gap,” said Maria Musarskaya, a lecturer in marketing at Bournemouth University who researches green consumer identities.
“We might have all the intention in the world to eat healthier, or to buy green products, or recycle. But when it actually comes to the behavior, there are different barriers that might stop us from actually doing that,” she said.
At the moment of purchase, customers often go into autopilot mode. “We just go with what’s easy,” Musarskaya said.
But people are not being disingenuous when they tell pollsters one thing and then act differently, said Samreen Ashraf, a professor who researches environmental consumerism alongside Musarskaya at Bournemouth.
“We have multiple identities — a mother, a daughter, a teacher, a student, a global citizen — and they’re all in conflict with each other,” she said. When it comes to shelling out money for an offset scheme, “I step back and think, ‘But I need money for my family.’ that [environmentalist] identity would take a backseat, and the other identity would become salient. And you go on and buy things that are cheaper,” she said.
There’s also well-founded concern about the effectiveness of offset schemes, which typically finance projects like tree-planting aimed at pulling carbon from the atmosphere. Such plans have been plagued with fuzzy accounting and execution.
“People don’t really understand the impact of carbon emissions in the environment. If you stop anybody on the street right now, you will be amazed to hear how few people understand offsetting programs,” Ashraf said.
The POLITICO poll question was: “Would you be willing to pay more to fly with an airline that takes consistent measures to reduce their carbon footprint?”
The highest-profile such measures that airlines take are offsetting programs, but Greenpeace described the practice as a “scammer’s dream scheme.”
Matteo Mirolo, an aviation policy officer at clean mobility NGO Transport & Environment, said consumers are willing to pay for cleaner flights but that airlines need to be offering genuinely effective solutions, like sustainable aviation fuel. Offsets are “plain greenwashing,” he said.
Airlines push back strongly on those claims.
“Criticism about carbon offsetting has been about this history when it comes down to certain projects,” easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren told POLITICO in November. The airline has some 16 offsetting projects, he said, which aren’t funded by voluntary schemes; the carrier says it pays for them itself.
“They are verified over and over and over again,” he said. “They have been scrutinized and have been scrutinized by every single person. Organizations that are critical, they come up with nothing on this.”
He argued that airlines are in a difficult position when trying to demonstrate their climate credentials.
Planemakers are working on zero-emission technology, but that’s not expected to be ready for the market until 2035. Sustainable fuel is available in small quantities but it’s significantly more expensive than conventional jet fuel.
Offsetting, Lundgren argued, is the only feasible mitigation measure for carriers at the moment.
While there is such little trust in big companies, and uncertainty around how offsetting programs actually work, customers might indeed prefer government measures like taxation or fuel mandates, Musarskaya said. Flights within the European Economic Area are currently covered by the bloc’s Emissions Trading System, but airlines get most of their allowances for free. The Fit for 55 reforms aim to reduce free permits and end them by 2027 — which should force carriers to put those costs onto their tickets.
That means people won’t get to skip the screen asking them to offset the carbon footprint of their holiday flight.
“It’ll make it easier for consumers to go with it if it’s just part of the price,” Musarskaya said.
This article has been updated to clarify that the easyJet scheme is not funded by customers.